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Apple and Samsung's battery woes highlight what a complex tech world we live in

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 battery woes, and now Apple's battery replacement program highlights a fundamental problem with the way smartphones are designed today.

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Highlights

  • Although smartphones have become an integral part of our lives, they've also turned into slabs of glass.

  • Removable batteries are becoming a rarity.

  • More than servicability, removable batteries are a necessity for safety reasons.

Smartphones are an integral part of our lives. We live in a world that’s constantly interrupted by app notifications. Whether it’s WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or even plain-Jane email, our lives are governed by the beeps on our devices.

And talking about smartphones, it’s really intriguing how the industry has been trying to evolve for some time now. But unfortunately, it simply hasn’t been able to. Although not as long term, smartphones are the new automobile, which were notorious for not changing over the century. Internal combustion engines have pretty much continued as standard design for several generations. Elon Musk though has now managed to bring about some revival to that industry.

I can’t help but ponder at what’s been happening in the smartphone industry lately. To drive the point, let me take your attention to the good old days of Nokia smartphones. Much before HMD Global. When the old Nokia built smartphones. Irrespective of whether it was an ‘entry-level’ phone or a ‘flagship’ device, you could bank on them. If you dropped them, they fell apart. And terms such as flagships didn’t quite exist. Ever since the iPhone has been around, which is the past 10 years, the term has caught on to describe the best from other manufacturers.

The change I hate

What’s happened to smartphones over the years is that they’ve gone insular in design. They’ve opened up our worlds in a myriad ways, but they have also gone to becoming slabs of glass barely offering any glimpse into their innards. I understand the need to do so – more optimized design, and supply chain management. This helps bring down cost, make devices slimmer, and largely appeals to a larger community of consumers.

But at what cost? If you’re a 90s kid or older, you’d recall forwards about using a bowl of rice for drying up gadgetry that’s fallen into a puddle of water. The instruction were simple. First, take off the battery. What do you do today? Unscrew the phone? Disconnect the battery connector? You just don’t have the option anymore.

Galaxy Note 7 was a wake-up call

Indeed, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 recall was a wake-up call. Millions of smartphones were recalled, when in reality all that was needed of consumers should have been to just swap their phone’s batteries. But no, supply chain and product design requirements have not only caused us to blindly follow the dynamics of the market, but in times, find us at the mercy of these forces. The fires we’ve read about through most of 2016 only highlight what can happen when things go wrong.

And Apple has only underscored it

The battery problem in the Galaxy Note 7, and the whole fiasco was unfortunate. It wasn’t intended. And it’s resulted in higher costs for the manufacturer too. So the perceived costs in making the battery fixed and non-swappable seems to have been nullified.

Recently, it was revealed that Apple was also taking measures to curb performance of iPhones to compensate for deterioration in battery performance. The obvious interpretation of it was that Apple wanted to sell more iPhones and hence did what it did. The rapid pace at which the news spread also highlighted the internet’s appetite for conspiracy theories. And while that’s not surprising at all, the reality is that Apple did what it did to maintain consistent user experience with its products. This is something that Apple has mentioned through its statement as well.

What we could (should) learn from battery hiccups

Smartphone batteries have given us two wake up calls so far. It’s high time the industry learns from it. Although I mention Apple and Samsung to illustrate the design constraints due to batteries, the case isn’t restricted to just them. Come to think of this, the whole smartphone industry has moved to fixed internal batteries on devices. At least flagship devices have. If you need smartphones with removable batteries, you’d need to run a Google search.

What happened to modular design?

Two observations I would like to recall here are modular smartphone design, and Moto Mods. Although the idea of a modular smartphone has been around for some time now, Project Ara by Google is what got the idea widespread attention. In case you’re not aware of Project Ara, it involved a jigsaw puzzle like device, where you could put together blocks of components and use your smartphone. If you needed to upgrade the device, all you needed to do was swap the respective component instead of replacing the device as a whole. Looking back, the idea didn’t quite take off the way we’d like.

But Motorola seems to have persisted with its Moto Mods. And just like the modular Project Ara, an isolated approach may not take things ahead. In this context, the ability to remove the battery makes more sense for a modular phone. Even though there are Moto Mods that allow you to add battery capacity, the option to remove the existing battery just makes more sense when things go wrong.

May be what we need is the king of batteries to relook at the smartphone industry. And if someone like Elon Musk, with a penchant for design could, we might even have a transformational change we long for.

  • Published Date: January 2, 2018 2:29 PM IST